How Important Is Sleep?

An adequate amount of sleep is vital to overall health and well-being. Do you want to get stronger, bigger, faster, or leaner? Sleep is a crucial element of recovery and improvement. How much damage are you doing to yourself with a lack of sleep? The answer may surprise you.

Go to bed late, sleep for five or six hours, and get up early to exercise. Sound like anyone you know? You may be better off skipping your early morning workout and sleeping for an extra hour or two. We abuse our bodies with energy drinks, caffeine, pills, and caffeinated drinks masquerading as coffee.

However, like nutrition, sleep takes a back seat to fitness and exercise for so many people. Why? Instant gratification. You go to the gym and put a hard hour of work in. You feel better, and in some cases, you may look better, too. However, if you miss out on an hour or two of sleep, or make an unhealthy choice at lunch or dinner, you won’t “see” or “feel” much of an immediate difference. Human beings love instant feedback and gratification, and sleep and nutrition, for the most part, don’t deliver either (relative to exercise and fitness, at least). But you could have the best workout program designed by the world’s best trainer – if you aren’t sleeping enough, you will simply be working against yourself.

A lack of sleep can lead to:

A decrease in insulin sensitivity. But there is some good news in this regard:

Sleep deprivation reduces insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. This happens even after mild deprivation, but normalizes quickly once you’ve had enough rest.

A decrease in testosterone. Which should be a huge red flag for anybody looking to improve their fitness level. However, like insulin sensitivity, testosterone levels return to normal after you get back on track with a solid sleep schedule.

Issues with weight control. 

A 2004 study published online at the Public Library of Science found that people who slept less than seven hours a night ate significantly more and weighed more than those who slept longer. What’s more, the more sleep-deprived the person was, the more they ate and the greater their weight gain.

These results can be directly attributed to two key appetite-regulating hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin (a hormone secreted by our fat cells) and ghrelin (a hormone secreted in our stomachs) work like a checks and balances system in the body to control your feelings of fullness and hunger. When you don’t get enough sleep, your leptin levels drop and your ghrelin levels rise. In other words, you’re more likely to crave sugary, high-carb foods (thanks to higher levels of Ghrelin) that have the potential to sabotage your diet.

Obviously the above study didn’t take a lot of other factors into account, but it is important to highlight the negative impact that a lack of sleep can have on body fat retention. If you are looking to improve your body composition, you usually start with your diet and training program. But how often do people consciously think about their sleep? It’s just as – if not more – important than the other two.

An increase in cortisol (the “stress” hormone)

Cortisol normally is high in the morning and low in the evening, but sleep deprivation normalizes this difference (lowering morning levels, increasing evening levels) and increases overall exposure to cortisol over a full day.

Improving sleep:

Food Intake. Learn what to eat and when to eat it. “Don’t eat carbs at night” is a complete myth (or the imaginary boogeyman, as Dr. Layne Norton puts it). In fact, night time may be the best time of day to ingest carbs (provided you expended enough energy during the other hours of the day to burn them off).

Sleep deprivation appears to increase food intake, likely due to the increased “pleasure response” to food. Paradoxically, this increased food intake might not be linked to more weight gain (rat studies confirm, human studies are somewhat unclear).

Positioning is power. If you sleep in a crappy position for seven or eight hours per night, your body won’t function as well as it should and could. Here are a few videos to improve your sleep your positioning:

And:

Brain dump. Have a cluttered mind? You won’t be able to get to sleep as easily. This seems very common sense, but many people don’t even think of it – before you go to bed every night, write down every single thing you want to get done the next day. That way, you can “dump” all of this information out of your brain.

Light Exposure. Darker = better. Get better blinds for your window(s).

Supplements.

Beyond melatonin, other possible options include generally relaxing compounds (lavender and l-theanine) or other endogenous agents that seem to regulate sleep (oleamide being the latest up-and-comer supplement). Lavender is actually an interesting option since it appears to be somewhat effective as aromatherapy as a “relaxing” scent, and aromatherapy may be the only way to continuously administer a supplement throughout sleep (via putting a few drops of lavender oil on a nearby object and continuing to breathe while you sleep).

Benefits of a consistent sleep schedule:

An interesting study done on Stanford athletes found that eight hours (or more) of sleep per night led to improved performance in a number of athletic measures.

Under GM Mike Gillis, the Vancouver Canucks have gone to great lengths to track and attempt to improve the quality of sleep their players get. Rest and recovery is so important in a sport as physical as hockey (especially during an 82-game regular season with so much travel involved).

The Canucks ‘sleep doctor’ has become a bit of a running joke among fans and media, but the quality of sleep for pro athletes should be of the utmost importance. And the Canucks have had a lot of regular season success over the past few years. Sure, they have had a really good team, but they also consistently rank near the top of the league in terms of miles travelled. Jet lag, fatigue, recovery – these are all huge issues that pro athletes deal with on a regular basis.

Byrne’s work culminated last year when Vancouver posted the NHL’s best road record, 27-10-4, which was nothing short of remarkable given that the city is the most northwest outpost in the league and that the team bears a heavier travel burden than its competitors.

Owners invest millions of dollars in these athletes, and if they are suffering from poor sleep, it is going to affect their performance (and in turn the return on investment these owners are getting). Here’s a more in-depth look at the company run by their sleep doctor, Pat Byrne.

Many professional sports teams do things like this – tracking how their players sleep, and scheduling travel around those patterns better. As I said above, it is foolish not to pay attention to this stuff. Just because a guy is really good at hockey or football doesn’t mean he knows how to sleep or eat properly. A lot of these guys succeed in spite of their habits, not because of them.

In conclusion…

Sleep is incredibly important to overall health. You won’t make any gains in the gym if you neglect sleep (in fact, you will likely head in the other direction). A lack of sleep leads to more fat retention, lethargy, decreased focus in the gym and at work, lower testosterone, and many other negative scenarios.

The average person needs to treat their body like a professional athlete treats his or hers. Figure out what you are putting in your body and get your sleep in order BEFORE you start going to the gym. If not, your efforts will be futile. Diet and sleep should always trump exercise. Consider exercise as the tabletop – without the legs (sleep and nutrition) – you don’t really have much of anything.

And for the million dollar question – how much sleep is enough? I’d say at the very minimum, seven or eight hours. And if that seems impossible, go to bed earlier. I know, I know, that is impossible. But if you really want to give yourself the best opportunity to stay healthy and get in great shape, neglecting sleep is a losing proposition.

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